The Weekend Australian - Magazine
Heart of the Nation
Peggy O’neal, Richmond Football Club president, 68
Of all the oddities in Australia’s native fauna, none comes close to the platypus. It’s not just their bonkers looks (when the first dried specimen was sent to the British Museum in 1799, the Poms at first thought it was a hoax) but their singular behaviour, too. These egg-laying mammals suckle their young not with nipples (they don’t have any) but by secreting milk through their skin; they breathe air but live mainly underwater, foraging at night for prey – insect larvae, crustaceans, worms and the like – that they detect with super-sensitive electroreceptors in their bill. It was recently discovered that their fur fluoresces under ultraviolet light, and no one knows why. But the very weirdest thing about them, reckons platypus researcher Josh Griffiths, is something else entirely.
The 43-year-old is pictured with a specimen he’s caught in a net strung across a creek at Warburton in Victoria’s Yarra Ranges. He has spent 14 years setting and checking nets to monitor how populations are faring (in a nutshell, not well: they’ve just been listed as Threatened in the state) but the nature of his fieldwork is changing: his crew at Melbourne firm Envirodna is now analysing genetic material in water samples to determine where platypuses are living – a breakthrough that he hopes will soon allow for large-scale audits of their populations.
Griffiths has a great affection for these animals – witness the touching body language here – and
Warburton 3799 takes care to minimise their stress as he gathers data (measuring, weighing, inserting a microchip, taking a DNA sample) before returning them to the water. This individual is a female. “Cradling a male under the body like that is a big no-no,” he says, by way of nominating the very weirdest thing about these animals: venomous spurs on the males’ hind legs that can inflict an agony that lasts for weeks. “Not even opiates have any effect on the pain,” he says. “I’ve never been spurred, but I’m told it’s so bad you wish you were dead.”
How did you, a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia, find yourself in Tiger land? I arrived in Melbourne in August 1989, and the grand final was in September. That day, no one was on the streets; I watched the game on TV and thought, “What is this?” After I requalified as a lawyer and started work in 1991, I knew I had to have a team; I lived in Richmond so I picked them. And then I fell in love with the competition.
Richmond has won three premierships in the past four years. But when you joined the board in 2005, the club was a bit of a basket case...
We were $6m in debt, and there was a lot of work to be done. I’ve always thought that if you didn’t get the off-field right, you didn’t have a chance of on-field success. Our CFO set up a very conservative budgeting process that we still use; we never spend money we don’t have. I think we took a realistic view of the challenge and just stuck to the plan. That was difficult, because for years we still weren’t winning – but little by little, step by step, it has come together.
In 2013 you became the first female club president in AFL history. How did you cope with the scrutiny? I realise I was a bit naive to think, “Oh, this media thing, it will pass” [laughs]. If you’re the unknown, the outsider, people will speculate... it stung, but after a while I thought, “You can’t take it personally.”
You’ve said boards should “stay out of football’s way”. Why?
There have been instances of boards wanting to pick the team or be best friends with the coach... and that would then influence decisions [around the game]. The game is only one part of what makes a club work; we hire really talented people to run various aspects of it and we have to let them do their job. You have to hold your nerve and play the long game.
The AFLW is a huge success; how about getting women into key management positions? Across all 18 clubs, there are about 38 female board members; it was great to see Kylie Watson-wheeler become Bulldogs president and I hope other women step up. But the next thing to address is the lack of women executives and CEOS at all kinds of sports organisations.
Last year your club offered unprecedented access to the makers of the Amazon Prime documentary series Making
Any regrets? I wasn’t alone in quietly thinking, “How is this going to come off?” But it did, and in the most unusual of circumstances; it became this record of how everyone across the league was managing the pandemic.
you have to hold your Nerve and Play the long game
It’ll be streamed worldwide – but isn’t AFL a mystery to people outside Australia? There’s a huge groundswell of support in the US for watching Australian Rules, and a bit of that is because we were playing [in 2020] when no one else in the world was playing sport. Also, I think the stories are universal, and anyone can appreciate the athleticism of it.
How are your own skills with the Sherrin? Terrible! But as an American footballer I was pretty good – I was quarterback in the Powder Puffs girls team. We were treated as a novelty act, but we had the whole uniform, shoulder pads and all.
The 2022 season will be your last as president. What’s next for you? I’ll go to the game as a fan and I’ll be able to sit in the outer and scream and yell without having to worry if the TV cameras will find me [laughs]. I don’t know, something will come along; I always have a curiosity about things I haven’t done before. I’ve been asked to write a memoir about my time at Richmond... I might turn my mind to that.
Actors Shia Labeouf and Armie Hammer, musician Marilyn Manson, director Joss Whedon. Know their names. Not for their successes in the entertainment industry but for their alleged treatment of the women around them. In some cases for decades. In which they’ve been quite possibly enabled by creative industries that have turned a blind eye. And the recently disclosed astonishments of grim little allegations will now be their legacy.
2021 is shaping up to be the Year of Consequences for men behaving badly. It now feels like the long game of the #Metoo movement. It’s not just in the worlds of music and film that there’s a reckoning underway but in sporting, business and political realms too. And it’s not just about treating women badly, but people in general; it’s a new world, with new standards. Yoshiro Mori, head of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, gone after declaring that “talkative women” made meetings “drag on”. Eddie Mcguire, president of Collingwood Football Club, gone after a long line of offensive and off-colour comments over the years. Bill Michael, an Australian who’s UK chairman of KPMG, gone after declaring to younger employees to “stop moaning” about the pandemic, and there’s “no such thing as unconscious bias”.
It’s becoming not so easy anymore to brush the behaviour of certain alpha men under the carpet, to just carry on with business as usual. They can no longer rely on the boys’ club to get them through. It’s a necessary generational shift; tolerance is at an all-time low. Just witness the simmering rage from women all around Australia over the government’s appalling enabling of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rapist in the corridors of power. The collective cry: this stinks. Enough. The alleged perpetrator needs to be brought to account. It’s a simple matter of justice.
And we have the splendid example set in a recent town council Zoom meeting in the UK’S Cheshire. Its indomitable host, Jackie Weaver (not ours, theirs, but just as glorious) briskly kicked off all the men behaving badly. If you haven’t seen the video I urge you to. It went viral. The men shouting, screaming, talking over the females were dispatched with the calm, no-nonsense brutality of a woman who’s dealt with jerks all her life and seen them endure. Rise. Progress. And destroy other people’s careers in their wake.
Well, no longer. Perhaps it’s a logical progression from Trump’s cruel era. The acknowledgment that men like this are not infallible; that their era is over and they can be brought down. Hot on the heels of Weaver’s no-nonsense spirit landed Crown Resorts’ reckoning, an inquiry that found evidence of money laundering and possible organised crime links in the casino operation. What came through loud and clear, with this and so many of these recent examples: if a wrong has been done, well, let’s bring it to light. Fix it. Change the culture.
#Metoo is making more and more women unafraid to come forward. To find courage in the examples of their peers. The awarding of Australian of the Year to Grace Tame, the wildly brave advocate for survivors of sexual assault, already feels seismic. Empowering. Women are speaking up about those whom they’ve tolerated for years – who should no longer be tolerated. The power feels contagious. This toppling of various giants feels like the movement’s long-lasting legacy.
And the charming specimens of creative masculinity mentioned at the start of this column, what will they now, perhaps, be known for? This is the slow burn of the #Metoo movement. The real business, the reckoning. Captains of your world, take note. A new order is coming for any toxic abusers in your midst.
It’s a new world, with new standards